With the VIX (proxy for market volatility) at its lowest level since 2007, it is not surprising that investors’ tolerance for risk appears to be growing, as evidenced by the continued strength in global equities and most other financial instruments. In a fascinating study conducted by John Coates, a research fellow at Cambridge, linking risk taking to physical responses to stress, it was shown that when market volatility is high, cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels increase, causing investor appetite for risk to decline. Conversely, when levels of market volatility are low, cortisol levels remain largely unaffected, resulting in a greater willingness on the part of investors to take on risk. One could argue that the complete transparency of central bank monetary policy around the globe, particularly in the United States, has caused the release of “one of the most powerful potential brakes on excessive risk taking in stocks.”† Whether or not we have reached bubble territory is subject to debate, but investors should be cognizant that, if risk is indeed largely predicated on the price one pays for a security, it is no time for complacency. As you well know, we are not about to make forecasts because in our mind, we are not sure from an investment standpoint that they are much better than random guesses. We think of ourselves as being in the business of chasing value, not performance, and we do know that we have to pay, on average, a whole lot more for a dollar of value today. Our experience has taught us that if we keep looking, and exercise some patience, opportunities will turn up.
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